Alumnae paving the way for success at Aspire Public Schools

by Sal Nudo  /   Jun 25, 2015

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Proud Illinois alumnae Meredith Dadigan Abel and Elise Darwish   

Public charter schools making topnotch education and college attainment a reality for children of low-income families

During her career in education, Elise Darwish ’88 C&I has taught in urban Chicago and in an affluent suburb in Woodside, Calif. Her diverse teaching experiences among children with varied ethnicities and social-economic levels have shown her that families want the same thing when it comes to education.

“All parents want their kids to do well, no matter how much money they make,” Darwish said. “And all kids learn in different ways, but all kids are kids.”

Hailing from Flossmoor, Ill., Darwish is now the chief academic officer at Aspire Public Schools, which has 38 schools in California and in Memphis. According to its website, the mission of Aspire from the start was to “grow the public charter school movement by opening and operating small, high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods” and thoroughly preparing those students for college.

The state and federally funded Aspire schools currently serve more than 14,000 children, and most of them qualify for free and reduced lunches. Darwish said Aspire has continually expanded to give choices to families who do not have high-quality public schools to select from.

The school days at Aspire are longer than at typical public schools, generally from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., though each school has autonomy on school-day length. Students at Aspire attend school 187 more days than is legally required in California, which Darwish said makes a difference.

“We have a shorter summer because kids lose some of their learning over the summer, and we just feel there’s a lot of relationship-building we want to do with the kids, and that takes time. There are a lot of academics and things we want to make sure they have in order to succeed,” she said.

Aspire Public Schools launched in 1998 through the efforts of founder Don Shalvey and Reed Hastings, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Netflix and is now the company’s CEO. Shalvey’s original vision for his college preparatory schools has remained on point as Aspire approaches two decades of service: In the last five years, every single Aspire graduate has gained admission to a four-year college or university.  

This success may explain why every Aspire school has a waiting list and student lottery process, unfortunate circumstances in Darwish’s view. She said invention currently abounds when it comes to thinking about what schools should look like, but that not enough high-quality options exist for children who all learn uniquely.

“Whether it’s a charter or a regular public school or a hybrid school or an online school, I think what I’d love to see is enough successful innovation that really serves kids the way they need to be served, that gives them the choice of college, and then the choice of a family-sustaining income,” she said.

Darwish added that there are too many kids in low-performing public schools, including charter schools. School districts and other providers need to step up, she said.

“We can’t do it alone.”     

A sincere investment in teachers

A fellow Illinois alumna who works with and knows Darwish well, Meredith Dadigan Abel ’04 C&I has taught at Aspire for approximately nine years. To this day, she still utilizes lesson plans she created as an elementary education student at the College of Education.  

“I literally have these resources on my computer … about the Civil War or about different aspects of history,” said Abel, who said she learned a great deal about diversity and benefitted from escaping her comfort zone while teaching and studying in the College.

Aspire has no magic bullet to attribute its success to, according to Darwish, but investing in the education of teachers has paid dividends. Whether it’s coaching, professional development, or feedback, teachers at Aspire are hardwired to better themselves so that they can improve student learning.

Following her time at Illinois, Abel eventually figured out what she wanted from a school she taught at: guided reading, teaching children in differentiated ways so they can succeed, and teachers who believed in the kids and were on the same page. Aspire offered all of those things, so she moved to California, a state she wanted to live in anyway.

“At Aspire, there’s so much collaboration,” Abel said. “Not just coordination where you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going to meet at this time and we’re going to plan.’ But really, really collaborating.”

That teamwork, reflection, and feedback allows Aspire teachers to create purposeful lesson plans that they have the freedom to develop, always thinking of the students first. In some ways, the teamwork within Aspire is similar to the community atmosphere Abel experienced at the College.

“Having each other to support each other,” Abel said of her student-teaching days. “Going to classes together and doing things outside of class as well. I just felt really supported, whether it was by the professors or by my cohort.”  

Additionally, Abel said her well-rounded education at the College, which included courses in art, physical education, social studies, science, and math, has assisted her in applying Common Core Standards in her classroom.

“I felt like I got the full picture of what it was like to be a teacher,” Abel said.

Both Abel and Darwish still get a taste of Illini fever when the College sends them University of Illinois gear for Aspire schools during College Week. They may be far away geographically from their alma mater, but each retains wonderful memories of Urbana-Champaign.

“College was really fun,” said Darwish, who lives in Oakland and participated in the U of I’s six-month study abroad program to England.

“It is a wonderful feeling to look back at my time at the College of Education at the University of Illinois and realize what an influence it has had on me as a teacher, and how my time there continues to influence me today,” Abel added.